The Big Sleep

Knights Symbol Analysis

Knights Symbol Icon

Knights in The Big Sleep symbolize private detective Philip Marlowe himself, and come to specifically reflect his growing sense of powerlessness to combat the immorality around him. Marlowe is often referred to by other characters as a “soldier,” as he is a hired man with a mission. As Marlowe walks into the home of his client, General Sternwood, for the first time, Marlowe notices a stained-glass window featuring a knight attempting to free a tied up “damsel” in distress. Marlowe thinks to himself that he wants to jump into the scene to help the knight, as the knight does not seem to be making any progress. This reveals Marlowe’s moral compass and desire to help those in need.

A notable turning point is when Marlowe looks despondently at the chessboard in his apartment after being visited by Carmen Sternwood. Playing chess by himself, Marlowe reverses a move he makes with a knight, commenting, “Knights had no meaning in this game.” Marlowe thinks knights, like himself, are not powerful or influential enough to swing the game—in his case, the game of life and death playing out in 1930s L.A. In keeping with this pessimism, at the end of the novel Marlowe spots the same glass panel in Sternwood’s home and notes that the knight “still wasn’t getting anywhere.” Upon this second viewing, Marlowe quietly accepts the knight’s failure, with no suggestion that he wishes to intervene. Despite all of the mysteries the detective has solved and lies he has uncovered, then, Marlowe does not feel that he is actually effecting positive change in this seedy world, or even improving his own immediate situation.

Knights Quotes in The Big Sleep

The The Big Sleep quotes below all refer to the symbol of Knights. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Corruption of Society Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Big Sleep published in 1939.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Over the entrance doors … there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair … I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

Related Characters: Philip Marlowe (speaker)
Related Symbols: Knights
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 20 Quotes

“General Sternwood’s a rich man,” I said. “He’s an old friend of the D.A.’s father. If he wants to hire a fulltime boy to run errands for him, that’s no reflection on the police. It’s just a luxury he is able to afford himself.”

Related Characters: Philip Marlowe (speaker), General Sternwood, Captain Al Gregory
Related Symbols: Knights, Money
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 21 Quotes

I wish old Sternwood would hire himself a soldier like you on a straight salary, to keep those girls of his home at least a few nights a week.

Related Symbols: Knights, Money
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 24 Quotes

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

Related Characters: Philip Marlowe (speaker), Carmen Sternwood
Related Symbols: Knights
Page Number: Book Page 156
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 30 Quotes

The knight in the stained-glass window still wasn’t getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree.

Related Characters: Philip Marlowe (speaker), General Sternwood
Related Symbols: Knights
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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Knights Symbol Timeline in The Big Sleep

The timeline below shows where the symbol Knights appears in The Big Sleep. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Wealth, Status, and Social Mobility Theme Icon
...takes in the impressive hallway and its extravagant decoration, including a stained-glass window showing a knight failing to save a damsel in distress, and a dark, brooding family portrait. Behind the... (full context)
Chapter 24
The Corruption of Society Theme Icon
Marlowe turns on more lights and moves a knight on his chessboard. Meanwhile, Carmen is giggling from the bed. She tells him she is... (full context)
The Corruption of Society Theme Icon
Cynicism and Survival Theme Icon
...has a professional duty to General Sternwood. Marlowe looks at his chessboard and moves the knight back. (full context)
Chapter 30
The Corruption of Society Theme Icon
Cynicism and Survival Theme Icon
...the pristine mansion, it feels to Marlowe like a year has passed. He sees the knight in the stained glass window again, noticing the knight still hasn’t saved the damsel. (full context)